Archive | July, 2012

Lupe Ontiveros: Real Actresses Know That There Are No Small Roles

30 Jul

Lupe Ontiveros (1942-2012). Though the Texas native earned two degrees at Texas Women’s University, both were in fields other than acting: psychology and social work. Acting came later after she and her husband relocated to California.

Well, in case you missed it on the news, and it certainly was not given anything like major coverage, Lupe Ontiveros, one of the most reliable character actresses in the biz, passed away on July 26 at the age of 69.  Per the Internet Movie Database, Ontiveros racked up an impressive 106 film and TV credits over the years, beginning with a role  in the original Charlie’s Angels in 1976 and continuing all the way to something entitled Land of the Free which is currently in post-production and should be released next year.

I’m sure I saw Ontiveros in scads of programs before I ever really noticed her–until her appearance in a popular 1997 biopic, but I’m getting ahead of myself; she was, by her own admission, often cast as maids and such.  Even one of the headlines announcing her death made mention of how she frequently portrayed domestics though she approached every single one of them as any actor would approach any character–the goal being to humanize the character and bring as much depth and personality as possible. The famous quotation, “There are no small roles only small actors,” is credited to no less than the great acting guru Konstantin Stanislavisky. Ontiveros, born in El Paso and a graduate of Texas Women’s University, certainly took that to be true as she once noted, “I’ve given every maid I’ve portrayed soul and heart.” She was also glad, per the New York Times,  “to represent those hands that labor in this country.”

Selena director Gregory Nava (l) and Ontiveros (r). The actress appeared in Nava’s acclaimed drama about Guatamalan refugees, El Norte (released commercially in 1984), featuring an Oscar nominated screenplay co-written by Nava and his wife, Anna Thomas. Nava and Thomas also co-wrote the screenplay for Selena. Additionally, Nava and Ontiveros worked together on 1995’s Mi Familia.

Anyway, I got my first truly vivid impression of Ontiveros in Selena, the 1997 account of the life and tragic death of slain Tejano singing sensation Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, which established Jennifer Lopez as a major star. Ontiveros took on the role of Yolanda Saldívar, the woman who ran the singer’s official fan club and eventually killed her upon being exposed as an embezzler. Saldívar, currently serving time for the murder, has long claimed the shooting was an accident. Clearly, the role of Saldívar was a thankless one; after all, who wants to play the murderer of a beloved cultural icon–especially when that icon is young, beautiful, and extremely talented? The sky was the limit for Selena until Saldívar put an end to her.  Thankless role or not, Ontiveros played the part matter-of-factly. She didn’t back away from the character nor did she play her as a monster. She inhabited the part and made it her own.  If you’ve never seen Selena, you should consider adding it to your movie bucket list not only as a reminder of the actual Selena but also as proof that before Lopez’s celebrity overwhelmed her every move, she actually showed promise as an actress. (Indeed, Lopez earned a Golden Globe for her performance.) Plus, it’s a good way to see Ontiveros in action as she started coming into her own in more high profile roles.

Chuck and Buck writer-actor Mike White (l) and Ontiveros (r). The quirky, to say the least, indie film was made for about $250,000 and earned just over a million dollars at the box office during its original run. The film is directed by Miguel Arteta, whose other credits include Star Maps (1997), The Good Girl (2002), Cedar Rapids (2011) and TV’s Nurse Jackie, among others. Arteta, White, and Ontiveros were all nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for Chuck and Buck.

In 2000, Ontiveros played a key supporting role in Chuck and Buck, a fascinating, if creepy, micro-budgeted indie flick about a, well, “childlike” man (portrayed by screenwriter Mike White) who relentlessly pursues–okay, stalks–the object of his boyhood affection (played by Chris Weitz). What was simply a phase, an exercise in same-sex curiosity for Weitz’s Chuck, has turned out to be the defining relationship in Buck’s life. Ontiveros plays the role of a woman that Buck meets clearly by chance, but knowing her background is in theatre, Buck persuades her to produce his play, a labor of love which romanticizes his infatuation with Chuck. Ontiveros’s character is a professional though one with little or no experience as an actual producer, and Buck is clearly not in a good place, so there’s a little wry comedy going on there, and these two play off each other splendidly. It’s been years since the one time I saw the movie, so some of the details are a little hazy. What’s not hazy is all the acclaim Ontiveros garnered for her work in the movie, snagging “Best Supporting Actress” accolades from the likes of the National Board of Review as well as a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award. Indeed, it was the awards season announcement of Ontiveros as an NBR winner that prompted me to watch the movie in the first place, having been less than enthused by some of what I’d read when the film was first released earlier that year. Though Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman named this his #1 flick of the year, it’s definitely an acquired taste. It’s not horrible by any stretch, but its approach surely tests the limits of what many people find entertaining or even suspenseful. The cast includes Maya Rudolph, Paul Sand, and Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz’s near lookalike brother, effectively cast in the role of the actor hired to play Chuck’s counterpart in Buck’s play [1].

America Ferrera (l) and Ontiveros (r) in Real Women Have Curves, a movie that more than lives up to its title, but you’ll not get any spoilers from me. Ferrera and Ontiveros were later reunited in Our Family Wedding (2010).

After Chuck and Buck, Ontiveros segued to Real Women Have Curves, the 2002 sleeper that introduced audiences to America Ferrera, who would go on to star in such popular enterprises as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) and TV’s Ugly Betty, which premiered in 2006.  The award winning Real Women… shows what happens when a bright, first generation American (or Mexican-American) teenager clashes with her strong-willed “Old World” mother over the former’s plans for the future. Of course, the audience is primed to root for Ferrara’s heroine to strike it big on her own terms, which includes leaving behind the family’s dressmaking business (okay, it’s a sweatshop) and going to a fancy university, but Ontiveros brings passion to the role of a woman who really believes she has her daughter’s best interests at heart even if she can’t always express that in the most positive light.  It’s a nice showcase for both performers, who tied for acting honors at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Plus, as its title suggests, it puts the focus on women who don’t fit the standard Hollywood idealized vision of beauty, and it shows a Latino family realistically (loving, clashing, and working hard to make ends meet) without pandering to the usual stereotypes (i.e. illiterate gang bangers and cholas); moreover, it does as much as any film can to explore such familiar topics as generational clashes, which, in this case, are also cultural in nature.  This is a nifty little film that does a lot given its modest scale.  It is directed by Patricia Cardoso and co-written by Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo, based on Ms. Lopez’s play. The cast also includes George Lopez (no relation).

Ontiveros was a three time nominee for the ALMA award, that is, the American Latino Media Arts awards presented by the National Council for La Raza, honoring artistic Latino achievements in movies, music, and television. Ontiveros’s noms were for As Good As It Gets (1997), Reaper (2007), and Veronica’s Closet (1997); she won for the latter. The ALMA’s replaced the NCLR’s Brabo awards. Ontiveros was also nominated for that honor per her performance in the telefilm, And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him.

Ontiveros earned an Emmy nomination for her guest-starring role as Juanita “Mama” Solis,  meddlesome mother-in-law to Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) in Desperate Housewives, back in the show’s smashing first year.  Though an expert foil for scheming Gabrielle, Ontiveros’s “Mama” was dealt a cruel blow not by her daughter-in-law but by random bad luck: first, a hit-and-run by the disturbed Andrew Van de Camp (Shawn Pyfrom) landed her in a hospital, comatose; then, after she woke from the coma, well, it wasn’t pretty–but it was funny, darkly funny as was the show’s strong suit back in the day. Though her stint on Desperate Housewives was relatively brief, and seemingly finite, Mama Solis would appear from time to time in flashbacks. She was even among the slate of departed characters who appeared one last time in the series finale back in May of this year.

Ontiveros’s many other credits include(d): As Good As It Gets (1997), Los Americans (2011),  Common Law (2012),  A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2005),  The Goonies (1985), Hill Street Blues (1981-84), King of the Hill (2002), Reba (2005), Rob (2012), Veronica’s Closet (1997), and Weeds (2008). Her stage credits include the acclaimed, if short-lived, Broadway production of the musical Zoot Suit (1979), which  was made into a Golden Globe nominated film in 1981 [2].

Though she never received an Oscar nomination for her many acclaimed performances, Ontiveros earned recognition in other forums, but that’s almost beside the point. She worked hard, worked often, and made a name for herself no matter how big or small the role.  That’s quite a feat in such a competitive and unlikely field as acting.

Gracias, Lupe…

Lupe Ontiveros at the IMDb:

Ontiveros’s obituary in the New York Times:

Saldívar loses appeal:

EW’s Owen Gleiberman on naming Chuck and Buck the “Best’ film of 2000:

Zoot Suit at the Internet Broadway Database:

[1] – Trivia note: the Weitz brothers, with extensive filmographies as writers, producers, directors, and actors, including co-writing and co-directing 2002’s About a Boy (starring Hugh Grant), are the sons of Susan Kohner, an actress perhaps most famous as the restless light-skinned African American who “passes” for white in the famous 1959 remake of the classic tearjerker Imitation of Life; Kohner earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. Chris Weitz directed 2011’s A Better Life, which netted a Best Actor nod for Demián Bichir.

[2] – Small world dept: Though Zoot Suit‘s Broadway run was short, the show nonetheless garnered a Best Featured Actor nod for Edward James Olmos, who later reprised his role in the film version. Of course, Olmos took his stunning talent and brooding good looks to TV, where he earned an Emmy award for his role as Lt. Castillo in the stylish 1980s crime drama, Miami Vice. Olmos subsequently garnered an Oscar nod for playing real life math teacher Jaime Esclante (recently deceased) in 1988’s Stand and Deliver.  Olmos portrays Abraham Quintanilla, Selena Quintanilla’s father and business manager in Selena.


Pretty as a Midsummer Night’s…

18 Jul

Well, it doesn’t look like Michael and I will be going to Arkansas for a mini-vacation this year: we’ve gone there three of the past four summers, opting instead for a trek to Oklahoma in 2010.  Arkansas, of course, is beautiful, it’s not terribly expensive, and it’s just a great way to get out of the harsh concrete-ness that is Dallas and to soak up Mother Nature.  I think all of us at one time or another need to get out of the city and get out of our heads. Arkansas gives us the opportunity to do both, and it’s not so very far from home, so we can drive; flying is such a hassle. I really wanted to see the new Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas (even with the Walmart connection), but the timing isn’t right. I’m lucky because I live in a nice walking neighborhood near a golf course, and it is quite lovely, so I still get a chance to do some outdoorsy stuff. I love my daily walks. I have walked as much as 10 miles in one afternoon.

Of course, this is Texas in the summer, so the heat can be an issue (though not so much this summer), which is why a good movie is another great vehicle for escape–and one doesn’t even necessarily have to go outside the home and fight traffic, the crowds at the theatres, etc.–not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I love watching a movie on a big screen with lots of eager, like-minded folks, emphasis on the word like-minded: for me that means being respectful of others, who’ve dropped more than a few bucks to be there,  and turning off the gd phone, but I digress.

The influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night can clearly be felt in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. The same source material also inspired Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which introduced the world to the evergreen “Send in the Clowns.” A 1977 film version, starring a wildly miscast Elizabeth Taylor, flopped with audiences though it actually won an Oscar for its score (adaptation) and earned another nod for costuming.  Taylor aside, the movie, which also stars Len Cariou, Diana Rigg, and Lesley-Anne Down, is not without its charms. I saw it in its brief run at the old Park Forest theater way back when.

Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) is like an old fashioned weekend getaway to the country. I say old-fashioned because it’s set in the early part of the 20th century. The first few scenes take place in New York City as a distinguished Columbia University professor, played by José Ferrer, prepares to embark on a trip to his cousin’s summer retreat (filmed in Poncantico Hills, New York, near Sleepy Hollow). The purpose of the trip is that the longtime bachelor professor has finally met the–much younger–woman of his dreams, and a wedding in the country offers a lovely respite from the harshness of the city and all the rigors of academic life. Of course, the set-up is barely–just barely–more than perfunctory because what Allen has in mind is a pastoral variation of a classic bedroom farce, a metaphysical lovers’ roundelay in which the hosts (Woody Allen and Mary Steenburgen) and the guests (including Tony Roberts and Mia Farrow) engage in all kinds of hanky-panky with lovers lost, found, and lost again in a spectacular woodsy setting. Anyone who knows of Allen’s fascination with legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman can surely spot the similarities–intentional or otherwise–between Allen’s film and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (itself the officially acknowledged source material for Stephen Sondheim’s much vaunted stage musical A Little Night Music); additionally, as Allen’s title suggests, the influence of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also surely evident. Indeed, not only does normally slick and cynical urbanite Allen go so far as to introduce an element of magic in his story, he fills the movie with the sounds of composer Felix Mendelssohn, whose music was also famously featured in Max Reinhardt’s celebrated 1935 film adaption of Shakespeare’s play.

That’s Diane Keaton (l) and Woody Allen (r) in silhouette in Manhattan. Their characters have just spent most of the night getting acquainted, and now dawn is slowly creeping up on them. I can only imagine how many hours it takes to make a shot this painterly happen.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is not vintage Allen. Not really. Oh sure, I like it, especially when I’ve had to cancel my vacation. No, the real focus of this article is not so much what Allen does in this film but to celebrate the work of Gordon Willis, Allen’s amazing cinematographer. Willis, to put it mildly, was one of the most under-appreciated cinematographers in the biz back in the day. Well, he’s still alive but definitely retired–and he was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award–but for the longest time, he seemed to command respect from top tier directors and critics though not so much from his peers in the Academy. For example, Willis was the dp (director of photography) on both Godfather movies in 1970s, and even though both films scored multiple nominations and both won Best Picture, Willis wasn’t even nominated. Really? How did that happen? It’s rare when a Best Picture front-runner (both with 11 nominations) somehow gets completely overlooked in the cinematography category. Just two years after Godfather II, Willis was once again snubbed for a heavy-duty Best Picture contender, All the President’s Men.

It has been reported that Willis often favored shooting during what is known as “The Magic Hour, ” which is “when the sun is low and creates a golden glow.”

Film aficionados know that Allen has long kept his distance from the Academy–a post 9/11 appearance aside; this, in spite of being a 4 time winner himself. As I recall, one of Allen’s biggest gripes against the Academy was that it never made sense to him that it took so long for the Oscars to recognize Willis’s brilliance.   On the other hand, though I do not have the actual quote right in front of me–I probably read it in an Oscar book or American Cinematographer, to which I once subscribed–I believe one of Willis’s detractors once complained that it was often hard to clearly see the eyes of the actors in a film shot by him. Well, I guess that could be a legitimate criticism, but I also think context needs to be considered as well.  Yes, Marlon Brando was often photographed in shadows in The Godfather, but wasn’t that part of his mystique in the role? Likewise, wouldn’t the web of confusion, deceit, and paranoia during the investigation of the unfolding Watergate story in All the President’s Men be better visualized through the use of dramatic shadows?

Besides, Willis was never as shadowy as all that. Just look at the stark imagery in Allen’s Interiors–or even the same film’s mournful nighttime shots by the beach (most likely a day-for-night effect achieved with filters) during the last reel. Magnificent! The audience gets everything it needs. Then, of course, there’s Manhattan, the first of several black and white Allen movies.  You know, the 1970s were not necessarily a great chapter in the life of this grandest of all American cities, but somehow Allen and Willis managed to make it look as breathtaking as it ever did in any old Hollywood film–the main difference being that many of those old films were actually shot on Hollywood soundstages and backlots whereas Allen and Willis serve the real deal in all its splendour.

Actually, Allen’s choice to film a period comedy in the midsummer’s warmth of the countryside was quite a surprise back in the day. Though Allen has filmed his recent movies in such European locales as England (Match Point), Spain (Vicky Christina Barcelona), France (Midnight in Paris), and Italy (To Rome with Love), Allen was famous in the 70s and 80s for wanting to film as close to New York City as possible, and that’s exactly what he did in Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan. He ventured away just a bit with Stardust Memories, but there was something else at work in those movies: Interiors was cold, too cool and calculated for its own good (which was really the point) and the black and white imagery in Manhattan, as rich as it was, somehow turned too studied in the b&w follow-up, Stardust Memories; therefore, it was startlingto see Allen venture out into the great outdoors with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and embrace Mother Nature in such a delightful manner.

Director Woody Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis move in a little closer on Mia Farrow (l) and José Ferrer (r).

Willis’s expertise makes almost every image in this particular film a joy to behold. An early morning montage just pops with one luscious image after another, mostly babbling brooks and animals frolicking in the woods, but lots of texture, lots and lots of beautifully rendered green tones along with sun dappled lighting effects.   One particular shot that never fails to amaze is a close-up of a ladybug crawling atop a lily. The clarity of it blows my mind. It’s certainly as beautiful as anything in, say, Terrence Malick’s award winning Days of Heaven (shot by Néstor Almendros), which was only 4 years old at the time of this movie’s release. There’s also an amazing marriage of image to music as a deer bounces along, perfectly in-sync to the strains of Mendelssohn’s score. There was either a lot of planning involved, or someone just got lucky with this snippet. Another tricky bit of business is aerial footage shot from Allen’s point-of-view as his character takes to the sky in his latest invention, a flying machine. Even though this movie is about magic, these shots don’t happen through sheer enchantment. Another swell sequence occurs as the characters dine al fresco during the early evening hours. The sun all but set, the sky turns a dark bluish gray, and the actors’ faces are awash with the warmest, most flattering light, seemingly possible with only the available glow of the table lanterns. When I saw this in theaters–yep, 30 years ago as of this very summer–I marvelled at how gorgeous everything was in this particular scene. I don’t think any of these performers has ever looked lovelier before or since. Of course, it seems unlikely that there wasn’t some kind of artificial lighting and/or filters involved, some cinematic sleight of hand, but, again, that’s the allure of movies–and this portion of the movie maintains much of its beauty on a DVD seen on a much smaller screen.

Though under-appreciated by the Academy while he was actively employed as one of the most sought after cinematographers in the business, Gordon Willis (above) was finally awarded an honorary Oscar in 2009. Between working with Allen on such films as Manhattan (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980), Willis briefly tried his hand at directing with 1980’s Windows starring Talia Shire and Elizabeth Ashley–as Shire’s lesbian stalker. The film is referred to in the documentary The Celluloid Closet as part the late 1970s/early 1980s trend, along with Cruising and The Fan, of depicting gays and lesbians as villains. Willis tired of directing because he reportedly wasn’t fond of dealing with actors.

Of course, many skeptics and movie biz insiders, also known as skeptical movie biz insiders, insist that it’s always easier to predict which movie will win the Best Cinematography Oscar each year by just focusing on “what” is being filmed rather than the actual quality of the film. In other words, movies with breathtaking natural vistas are almost always a safe bet. It’s hard to argue with that line of thought too much when looking back at the likes of such past winners as, again, Days of Heaven (1978), The Mission (Chris Menges, 1986), Dances with Wolves (Dean Semler, 1990), A River Runs through It (Philipe Rousselot, 1992),  and Legends of the Fall (John Toll, 1994). It’s true that it’s hard for many of us city dwellers to not get choked up at images of wide open spaces of amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty. Guilty.  On the other hand, as easy as it is to dismiss such imagery as mere calendar art–of which I have also been guilty–it pays to remember that the logistics of shooting a film outdoors provide more obstacles than shooting on a studio soundstage or other locations that offer more control [1]. For example, in a piece on the Turner Classic Movies website, Allen describes just how much thought, detail, and time went into getting each and every shot in this movie exactly right. In fact, the shoot ran so long that it not only caused Allen to work on it and his follow-up, Zelig, at the same time, he ended up having to paint the leaves on the trees green when summer started turning into fall. Allen does not mention his second unit crew in the article, but I’m sure they also spent a lot of time in the trenches filming actorless nature footage, so I’ll mention them here: Frederic B. Blankfein, Tony Gittleson, Thomas A. Reilly, and Duncan Scott.

Besides his work for Allen and Coppola, Willis’s other high profile films include 1981’s Pennies from Heaven, featuring Vernel Bagneris (above), director Herbert Ross’s stylized Depression era musical starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, and Jessica Harper. Willis is also famous for his frequent collaborations with director Alan J. Pakula: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Comes a Horseman (1978), Presumed Innocent (1990), and The Devil’s Own (1997)

In this particular instance, Allen’s film, again, wasn’t even nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar. Well, the movie was far from a box office success, as Allen notes in the TCM piece. Plus, at that time, the Academy just wasn’t as enthralled with Willis as they were–or had been–with Allen though this is the movie that should have made a difference. No problem with actors not being well lit here.  Of course, any discussion of who won/didn’t win, was/was not nominated must also take into consideration the other films in contention that year. Not surprisingly, Gandhi was the winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar–and why not?  The movie was an elaborate location shoot with complex action sequences and all kinds of crowd scenes.  It even took the award winning efforts of two cinematographers to make it happen: Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor. It also helped that Gandhi was also the Best Picture frontrunner, thereby adding support to the my previous point about Willis and the Godfather movies. The competition also included the aforementioned Néstor Almendros for Sophie’s Choice, which featured two completely different lighting schemes: warm and inviting for the Brooklyn scenes; cold and gritty for the concentration camp flashbacks. Another candidate was the great Owen Roizman, who was burdened with the task of lighting Dustin Hoffman in drag for Tootsie, making the actor look as soft and femme as possible, while also lighting the seemingly effortlessly beautiful Jessica Lange. Of course, the trick was to make both performers look great in medium shots and to make them look like they actually existed in the same realm, at the same time, when shooting their close-ups. Point taken. Compared to these obvious feats, Willis’s work looks like less of an achievement, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily so.

The critics were not especially kind to this movie when it was first released, one of the biggest gripes being that the female characters seem all too willing to be sexual playthings for the menfolk. Hmmm, that’s not exactly what I get out of it. What I get out of it is that the women are in many ways less hung-up about sexuality than are the men, which the men, for all their talk, somehow can’t quite grasp. All of this makes sense to me given the time in which the movie is set: yes, women are starting to think–and do–for themselves, and part of that means that they realize that they are in control of their bodies, their sexuality, and men cannot be the only ones calling the shots when it comes to sex–and that women are just as capable of experiencing pleasure as men are.  Allen punctuates the point by showing that the women confide in each other, and if that weren’t enough, he even adds a quick shot of  the women stealing away for a smoke.  The women aren’t necessarily pushovers, but they are learning to assert their identities.  What’s so bad about that?

How are the performances? Well, Allen isn’t doing anything in this film as an actor that he has not done already, nor is Tony Roberts.  On the other hand, the performances by the rest of the bunch,  including wide-eyed Julie Haggerty,  as Roberts’s latest squeeze, are a lot of fun. Mary Steenburgen is another delight, and Jose Ferrer has fun playing a pompous windbag.  This was the first film collaboration between Allen and Mia Farrow, and the latter plays her role in such a way that brings to mind the flaky charms of Diane Keaton, perhaps Allen’s ideal onscreen partner. (I believe Keaton was originally cast but had to bail due to other commitments.)  I like Farrow in this role though it reportedly holds the distinction of being the only performance in an Allen film ever nominated for a so-called Razzie award, that is, among the worst of a given year. Well, I don’t know about all that. I think it’s amusingly spot-on.  Of course, we all know that Woody and Mia didn’t live happily ever after–well, at least not with each other–but once Allen started writing scripts with Farrow in mind, the actress turned in one incredible performance after another: Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Alice (1990), etc.

Gordon Willis earned his first Oscar nomination for 1983’s Zelig, which presented Allen’s Leonard Zelig (center) alongside such historical figures as Calvin Coolidge (l) and Herbert Hoover (r). Willis reportedly even used older, practically antiquated, equipment to get the look he wanted during the difficult shoot–and beat Forrest Gump to the punch by 11 years.

The costumes by Santo Loquasto are exquisite, surely as richly detailed as anything in either Reds or Chariots of Fire, both of which were released a year prior to A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy; Milena Canonero’s designs for the latter actually won the Oscar. Pity the poor wardrobe supervisor who had to worry about keeping the cast’s summer-whites–and off-whites–fresh and spotless during a mostly outdoor location shoot.

I guess, in keeping with the fun and lightness of this film, there is a happy ending or two.  First, Willis was nominated the very next year for his work on Allen’s Zelig–and good for Willis. Zelig is a marvel.  Later, Willis earned a second nod for Godfather III though, of course, he lost to the previously mentioned Dean Semler for the more panoramic Dances with Wolves. Obviously, Allen has recovered in more ways than one.  I think most interesting of all is how many blog pieces I’ve actually come across about A Midsummer Night ‘s Sex Comedy as I set out to write about the movie myself.  Most of the comments are about what a great looking movie it is, so that’s cool–and a welcome reminder about the powerful afterlife that movies can have these days thanks to advances in home video. Actually, on some level the movie is actually about modern technology and the invention of the movies, but I digress. At any rate, a wonderful DVD, of this or any other movie, is a neat way to beat the summer doldrums when a weekend getaway to the country–say, Arkansas–just isn’t convenient.

Thanks for your consideration…

^ Mary Steenburgen in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Critics of cinematographer Gordon Willis often complained that performers weren’t lit as clearly as they needed to be, especially their eyes, but this interior shot with light filtering in through an open window acts as a powerful rebuttal to such a notion. In one well choreographed vignette, the camera follows Steenburgen and Allen down stairs, through a series of small rooms, and back up the stairs all in one lovely interrupted shot. Natural light floods the rooms with some of the action photographed via a large wall mirror. It’s like a nifty cinematic parlor trick, which is aproppos given the movie’s concerns.

Some of the posts about A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy on the IMDb complain that the obvious “day for night” shots are not especially well-rendered. I freely admit that I’m not a fan of the concept in general–even as a child, I found it oddly distracting–but I think Willis and Allen make it work about as well as possible. Btw: that’s Allen on the left; Mia Farrow on the right.  For those out of the loop, “day for night” is simply the process of trying to replicate nighttime shots during broad daylight. The effect is usually achieved by under-exposing the film and/or the use of filters; Day for Night is also the name of Francois Truffaut’s Oscar winning film from 1973.

[1] On the other hand, the three most recent winners in this category, Hugo (Robert Richardson), Inception (Wally Pfister), and Avatar (Mauro Fiore) show appreciation for the difficulties cinematographers face with big budget effects-driven vehicles, such as shooting in 3-D,  as was the case with Hugo, thereby reducing Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous nature-driven work on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life to also-ran status. But I digress.

Gordon Willis at the Internet Movie Database:

Woody Allen at the IMDb:

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy at the IMDb:

Smiles of a Summer Night at the IMDb:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) at the IMDb:

A Little Night Music at the IMDb:

An article about A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy on the Turner Classic Movies website:|0/A-Midsummer-Night-s-Sex-Comedy.html

Link to the historic Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills NY, where much of A Midsummer Night ‘s Sex Comedy was filmed:

Rockefeller State Park Preserve:

UPI article about Gordon Willis:

Glossary of film terms, including “day for night,” via Dartmouth:

Richard D. Zanuck: The Stuff of Which Legends Are Made

13 Jul

Richard D. Zanuck (l) and his business-partner and wife, Lili Fini Zanuck (r), accept the 1989 Best Picture Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy.  Fun-fact: at the time, Ms. Zanuck was only the second woman to ever win an Oscar as the producer of a Best Picture winner. The first woman to do so was the late Julia Phillips, one of three producers of 1973’s The Sting, which was actually a Zanuck-Brown production during the team’s tenure with Universal Pictures. Nice.


Legendary Hollywood movie producer Richard D. Zanuck has passed away at the age of 77. He is survived by, among others,  his wife Lili Fini Zanuck, with whom he co-produced 1989’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy. Even without the distinction of being an Oscar winner, Zanuck was already a show-business powerhouse.

His father was the mighty Darryl F. Zanuck, one of the founders of 20th Century Fox. Under the elder Zanuck’s watch, Fox produced an array of successful films that included such major Oscar winners as How Green Was My Valley (1941–and the movie that topped Citizen Kane in the Academy sweepstakes), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and  All About Eve (1950). By the 1960s, Darryl was out at Fox, and Richard was in (that’s the short version of the story as the elder Zanuck was actually out, in, and out again), this during the era in which the gazillion dollar production of Liz and Dick’s Cleopatra (1963) almost destroyed the studio while a scant two years later The Sound of Music brought it back to thundering life.

While at Fox, Richard Zanuck not only had his stamp on a host of hits, such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Patton  (Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1970), and The French Connection (1971, and another major Oscar winner), he was also at least partially responsible for such expensive flops as Dr. Dolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly! (1969).  By his own admission, Zanuck later offered that the phenomenal success of The Sound of Music set a bar for family friendly musical extravaganzas that such follow-ups as, say, Dr. Dolittle, could not even hope to replicate. Even so, Fox famously promoted both Dr. Dolittle and Hello Dolly! to Oscar contender status as the two films were both finalists for Best Picture.

A poster is worth how many movie tickets? Today, summer blockbusters regularly open on thousands of screens, but Jaws was in all-new waters, so to speak, when it debuted on 490 screens back in the summer of ’75. The legend is that a plan to open on even more screens was thwarted because the idea was to create another kind of hysteria–other than shark sightings–by creating longer lines at box-offices, which would only be possible, of course, with fewer screens.

Zanuck was eventually released from his duties at Fox and formed a partnership with [the late] David Brown whom he’d met at Fox.  For several years, the pair produced movies through Universal Pictures. This partnership resulted in the likes of The Sting (1973’s Best Picture winner, for which Zanuck and Brown served as executive producers, and which I will write about one day), as well as Steven Spielberg’s feature film debut, 1974’s The Sugarland Express (starring Goldie Hawn–and filmed on location in Texas). Of course, from there the Zanuck-Brown company hired Spielberg for their next film, 1975’s summertime blockbuster, Jaws–and the rest is pretty much history. The film soared to the top of the box-office charts, and it also prompted studios to consider wider release patterns rather than the then standard of platforming a movie: opening on the coasts firsts, and then opening slowly across the nation, sometimes one city, or one theater at a time.  In contrast, Jaws opened wide, bolstered by a national advertising blitz, and then went wider still once the buzz was in full swing.  Though Spielberg was famously snubbed by his peers in the Academy’s directors’ branch that year, Zanuck earned his first actual Best Picture Oscar nomination, sharing it with c0-producer Brown.

Nice work if you can get it: during his reign as 20th Century Fox’s Head of Production, Richard Zanuck oversaw the mammoth musical smash, The Sound of Music, which supplanted Gone With the Wind as the all-time top box-office champ. Ten years later, he co-produced Jaws, which also climbed to the top of the all-time moneymaker charts. Somewhere between his work at Fox and the time he spent at Universal with David Brown, he was briefly on board at Warner’s and reportedly helped  usher production on the 1973 landmark horror film, The Exorcist, which would go on to earn a fortune and duke it out with The Sting for top honors at the 1973/74 Academy Awards.

The hits just kept on coming for Zanuck-Brown as they went back to Fox and produced Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (a 1982/83 Best Picture nominee) and 1985’s Cocoon (another blockbuster, true, but my one-time viewing was more than enough.) By the time of Cocoon, and its unfortunate sequel, the second Mrs. Zanuck was on board, and if there is any redemption to be found in either Cocoon film, it’s that the Zanucks established a working relationship with the late, great, Jessica Tandy, who was then perfectly cast as Miss Daisy in the film version of Alfred Uhry’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Never mind that Tandy won an Oscar–that’s just a bonus–it was quite a thrill to see one of the leading lights of the theatrical world finally get the chance to show all her acting mettle onscreen, front and center, rather than a second or third billed supporting player. (She was famously overlooked–in favor of Vivien Leigh–for the film version of her early stage triumph as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Names Desire.)  Plus, even though skeptics like to dismiss Driving Miss Daisy, I was and still am a fan of the movie (it deserves a blog entry all its own), and I like to remind the cynics that it was actually huge hit, without a doubt defying conventional notions that movies about “older people” wouldn’t fly with contemporary audiences without some far-fetched gimmick (fountain of youth, robbin’ a bank, aliens, zombies, vampires, apocalypse, elaborate special effects, oldies soundtrack, “flash-cutting,” etc.)

Jessica Tandy (l) and Morgan Freeman (r) in  1989’s Academy Award winning Driving Miss Daisy. Per Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, one studio offered to work with the Zanucks on the film if Bette Midler and Eddie Murphy were cast in the leading roles. Warners said yes, but, fearful of Tandy’s age and the stress of shooting on location in Atlanta during the summer, made the actress pay her own $130,000 insurance premium. When the movie, which was made for about 7.5 million and ultimately earned over 100 million, turned ought to be such an unqualified hit, the studio reimbursed Tandy and gave her, as well as Freeman and director Bruce Beresford, a chunk of the profits. Freeman, btw, played Hoke Colburn in the original off-Broadway production of Alfred Uhry’s play about the slowly evolving relationship between a rich Southern widow and her chauffeur during the Civil Rights era.

To clarify, Tandy turned 80 during the location shoot in Georgia, and her Oscar nominated co-star Morgan Freeman was in his early 50s. A lot of studios turned down the property–or attached outrageous strings to it–before Warner Bros. said yes.  Zanuck took a gamble with this one, and it paid off gloriously. A year after Miss Daisy, he was awarded the Academy’s prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which he shared with David Brown, in recognition “of work” [that]  reflect[s] a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

In recent years, Zanuck has worked closely with director Tim Burton on such films as the 2001 Plant of the Apes remake (!) Big Fish (2003), Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2010–another flat-out global blockbuster), and this summer’s less fortunate Dark Shadows.

Zanuck was given a leg-up in the biz because his dad was so well-connected, but even with a few high profile costly failures, he made a place for himself and secured his own status as one of the savviest producers of the  past several decades. He helped open doors for female producers (see the picture at the top of the article); he knew how to take a chance on a relative unknown, such as Spielberg, and when to trust his material and hire the right people (Tandy, Freeman, director Bruce Beresford) when the same material had other execs running scared.  He was a showman. It was in his blood, but he made it his own.

Thanks, Richard…

More Zanuck coverage in Variety:

Zanuck at the Internet Movie Database (includes quote about the effect of The Sound of Music on the rest of the business):

The Thalberg Award at the official Academy website:

An Actor and a Movie Star: Mr. O’Toole Takes His Leave

11 Jul

Alas, the great Peter O’Toole has passed away at the age of 81. May he rest in peace. Please indulge me as I repost a piece I wrote in July of 2012 just as O’Toole announced his retirement. Thank you.


I started writing this blog a year ago today. This is not the piece I intended to post in order to mark my anniversary; however, when Peter O’Toole decides it’s time to retire, attention must be granted…

Rest assured, Mr. O’Toole is not gone for good–not yet; however, a recent report reveals that with the actor approaching his 80th birthday, he has decided to retire from the profession that has given both us and him so much pleasure for the last five decades (or so). I had the good fortune to see him in person once: it was at his book signing at the old Taylor’s bookstore, just around the corner from the UA Prestonwood Creek 5 where I worked back in the day.  I was not there for myself, per se. A friend of mine had bought the book, and I stood in line with her.  I think was probably sometime in 1993. I still have a photo. Mr. O’Toole was looking quite splendid that evening, and he was incredibly charming.

He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar 8 times. He never won a competitive Oscar though he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Academy in 2003 though he was initially reluctant to accept it.  His last nomination came a few years after that–for 2006’s Venus. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we?

Playing T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was not O’Toole’s first screen role, but it certainly put the previously little known actor on the map. He was never less than a star from that moment. The movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, out of 10 nominations total. Of course, O’Toole was nominated, but he lost to Gregory Peck’s equally iconic performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Wow! What a tough choice. He won the British Oscar at any rate. (Do I sound too much like an old fogey if I add, “They don’t make them like that anymore?”) O’Toole was so beautiful that the film was sometimes referred to as Florence of Arabia. In 1989, the film was given the full-restoration treatment and re-released to theatres, setting the stage for a number of high-profile restorations, including Spartacus, My Fair Lady, Vertigo, and Rear Window.

O’Toole (l) played King Henry II to Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket in 1964’s Becket. Both actors were Oscar nominated; they lost to the overwhelmingly popular Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. With a total of 7 nominations and no wins, the late Richard Burton is the second most nominated actor to never win an Oscar–and he died before he could even  be given an honorary award. Burton’s nominations are as follows: My Cousin Rachel (Best Supporting Actor, 1952), The Robe (Best Actor, 1953), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Best Actor, 1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (B.A., 1966), Anne of the Thousand Days (B.A., 1969), and Equus (1977).

O’Toole (l) earned his third Oscar nomination for once again portraying King Henry II, this time opposite Katharine Hepburn (r) as Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1968’s The Lion in Winter. Hepburn tied for Best Actress that year with Barbra Streisand in her film debut as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. O’Toole is one of the few performers to earn Oscar nominations for playing one character in multiple
films. The Lion in Winter also features early screen appearances by future Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins and a future James Bond, albeit short-lived, Timothy Dalton.

Whatever the Irish word for chutzpah is, O’Toole has plenty of it, and he demonstrated as much when he starred in 1969’s musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Of course, the 1939 original featured an Oscar winning performance by Robert Donat, but even though O’Toole’s version was hardly a smash, the Academy thought well enough of it to grant a nomination to O’Toole, and that really says a lot.  Oh, he lost to no less than John Wayne in his iconic role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Btw: that’s popular British songbird Petulia Clark on the right. Three years later, O’Toole tried his hand at another onscreen musical, Man of La Mancha. He earned a Globe nom for that one.

In the same year in which he appeared as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, O’Toole dazzled fans and Academy members alike in The Ruling Class. Oh, my. How many times can a girl sit through this darkly comic treat, especially at the old Granada theatre on Lower Greenville? Many times. O’Toole plays an heir who’s about to take his seat in the House of Lords to the utter consternation of his family. You see, the dear boy believes himself to be Christ incarnate (“When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself. “), and he must be cured. At that point, the movie takes a diabolical twist. Well, see it for yourself. It’s a showy role, no doubt, and O’Toole has a grand time. Of course, these days a lot of people think they’re Jesus, right? O’Toole lost that year to Marlon Brando in The Godfather, which was, of course, a blockbuster hit besides being a comeback for Brando. On the other hand, The Ruling Class was a few years away from becoming a cult classic. Well, at least the Academy had the good sense to nominate O’Toole anyway. If you haven’t seen it, you must. Look for the Criterion edition on Amazon.

O’Toole earned his 6th Oscar nomination for Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980), in which he plays a ruthlessly driven, though endlessly intriguing, film director who uses an on-the-run Vietnam vet (Steve Railsback) as a stunt double when tragedy strikes a problematic location shoot; a fiendishly clever cat and mouse game, full of smoke and mirrors, ensues. D’lish! O’Toole reportedly based his characterization on his legendary Lawrence of Arabia director, David Lean. The Stunt Man is one of filmdom’s great underdog stories. The studio abandoned the movie after Rush completed it, and it languished on the shelves for years until a series of screenings in Seattle proved so popular that the studio–20th Century Fox–finally got behind it and released it nationally. O’Toole and Rush were subsequently nominated for Oscars. O’Toole lost to Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull), and Rush lost to Robert Redford (Ordinary People). Btw: most of the movie was filmed in and around the famous Hotel del Coronado near San Diego CA., the same place where much of 1959’s Some Like It Hot was filmed; loads of extras on the DVD.

“I’m not an actor; I’m a movie star!” Ah, yes. O’Toole earned Oscar nod #7 for his performance as fictional matinee idol, Alan Swann, in 1982’s My Favorite Year. The plot, inspired by swashbuckling Erroll Flynn’s guest appearance on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows back in the 1950s, shows how a nebbish new staffer (Mark Linn-Baker) is assigned the task of ensuring that the roguish, and often heavily
inebriated, Swann makes it to the studio on time, in one piece, and, uh, relatively sober. The movie marked the directorial debut of Richard Benjamin and was generally well received. The glorious supporting cast includes Joseph Bologna, Lainie Kazan, Jessica Harper, Bill Macy, Lou Jacobi, Selma Diamond, and even Gloria Stuart. Of course, O’Toole lost that year: to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. Even so, this was an especially strong Best Actor race, what with the likes of Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), Jack Lemmon (Missing), and Paul Newman (The Verdict). My Favorite Year was later a short-lived Broadway musical with an ideally cast Tim Curry in the role of Swann.

Peter O’Toole’s final Oscar nomination was for 2006’s Venus, a sad, odd little film about an aging actor, with declining health, who strikes up a rather frightening relationship with a much younger woman. I consider myself a huge O’Toole fan, but even this film is outside my range of appreciation; strictly a curiosity piece though the Oscar nod was a nice touch. O’Toole lost to Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.

O’Toole originally scoffed at the idea of being awarded an honorary Oscar during the 2002/03 telecast. Luckily, he thought better of his reluctance and graciously accepted. Good for him. Since Venus, he has lent his voice to the animated Rataouille (2007), and appeared in the popular mini-series The Tudors, among others. His résumé actually includes a number of TV offerings, including 1981’s Masada, for which he was Emmy nominated. He actually won a Supporting Actor Emmy for his work in the mini-series Joan Arc (1999) His many other credits include 1987’s Best Picture winner The Last Emperor (in the role of the future emperor’s Scottish born tutor), What’s New Pussycat, the infamous Caligula (produced by Penthouse’s Bob Guccione; saw it on opening night at the old Highland Park Village), and more TV adaptations, including both Pygmalion and Svengali. He also played in something called Final Curtain, and I guess this is where this remembrance ends.

Thanks, Peter…

Read about O’Toole’s retirement in the Los Angeles Times:,0,119609.story

Peter O’Toole’s retirement on CNN:

Peter O’Toole’s profile on the Internet Movie Database:

O’Toole’s autobiography on Amazon:

The Stunt Man and its Seattle backstory: